Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Lord: Chapter 5, “Baptism and Temptation”

My dear old friend,*

Why did we think we were so smart? Maybe now that we’re past 60 we can face that question. You were a 14-year-old prep, I a 15-year-old lower, when we first arrived on campus. Like Jesus, we each had come from silent years in Nazareth and crossed the Jordan. For what baptism? And what temptation?

Each new boy had to report to the infirmary to have his picture taken in the nude, full frontal. I recall adolescent jokes about, what if you got excited while you were standing there? The answer I heard was, the nurse had a spoon to whack you with, and that would take care of that.

That was part of our baptism. After that rough opening, we were all little princes and knew it. And usually kept our clothes on.

In chapter 5 of The Lord, Romano Guardini tells the story of Jesus’s own “Baptism and Temptation”:

“Jesus arrives at the Jordan, the profound experience of childhood and the long process of maturity behind him. He is fully aware of the stupendousness of the task before him and of the powers that rise to meet it from the depths of his being. Yet his first gesture, first words are an expression of deep humility. No claims to special privileges . . . ”

As you have heard from the Episcopal pulpit, I from the Catholic ambo, Jesus submits to the same law as everyone else. In Guardini’s words, “Jesus quietly takes his place in line. He refuses to be an exception.”

Back to school. We had the life, didn’t we? We were all exceptional, and exceptions were made for us. Even the requirement that we attend religious services on Sunday was lifted after my second year. A group of student deacons were gathered by the school minister to define worship in their own terms. No further need to submit to traditional religious discipline. We made our own.

I am reminded of the scene in the film version of A Separate Peace when the students parade around inside Phillips Church singing “Hitler, he only had one ball!” It’s a hilarious scene, and of course, in the strict sense, a desecration. But then the sense of holy place had left Phillips Church some time before. You and I put on a scene from Waiting for Godot on the same stage, and called it—worship?

We were only kids, of course. But as I told you, I am writing a memoir of my own spiritual journey from the Episcopal Church to the Catholic Church, which included forty years of wilderness in between. The forty years started at Exeter, and I’d like to understand why.

This crazy project of reflecting on The Lord through the lens of our shared experience is—as you can see—bringing back memories.

What next? Well, tomorrow’s chapter is called “Interim.” What could that mean?

Always your friend,

This series of letters continues here with chapter 6.

* This post continues a chapter-by-chapter series on The Lord by Romano Guardini, in the form of letters to an Episcopalian friend and onetime schoolmate. Scroll back through older posts to see previous letters about earlier chapters.

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